Aspect Ratios for Filmmaking

Understanding Aspect Ratios for Filmmaking

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As filmmakers, having a good understanding of aspect ratios is essential.  The frame size you choose to for your short film can really help create meaning and direct the viewer’s attention.

In this article, we’re going to cover the three main aspect ratios for filmmaking.

Aspect ratios comparison chart

A Quick History Lesson On Aspect Ratios…

Over the course of film history, aspect ratios have changed dramatically. With different frame sizes carrying a different historical context.

As a result, an understanding of this cinema history can really help you utilise this tool to change how a viewer experiences your content.

Frame size is a great way to help shape the meaning of your visuals, through its pre-existing connotations.

Here’s a short infographic that gives a rough history of aspect ratios in filmmaking. Whilst also highlighting some of the famous examples.

Timeline of different aspect ratios

4:3

Firstly, 4:3 is the O.G. of film. Since its first use in silent films during the 1930s, it has recently come back into fashion with the revival of 16mm.

You’ll often see it in music videos or branded content. However, it’s pretty rare to see it in contemporary Hollywood films, unless you’ve seen the Grand Budapest Hotel.

4:3 Great Train Robbery film

This aspect ratio is a great tool for helping focus the viewer on an individual character/object. By limiting the size of the area the viewer sees, it helps draw the eye line to vertical lines, bodies and faces.

In addition to this it also naturally allows an individual to fill the screen. This helps create a sense of intimacy with the characters/object that actively occupies the frame.

Due to the ratios box-like nature, it can also help convey a sense of claustrophobia. The frame is focused, and there isn’t room for a viewer to look away. Instead, they are forced to confront the frame in front of them.

glass of milk shot social media video 4:3

4:3 is one of the aspect ratios for filmmaking that can really help stir emotions in your viewer. It allows you to form images which can create a connection between the audience and screen.

16:9

Parkrun run promo video 16:9

If 16:9 was an ice-cream it would be vanilla. This is the standard for most things on TV or online. It’s a great frame for striking a balance between 4:3 and wider aspect ratios. In fact, it was invented through a compromise between film and television.

This is the main ratio most filmmakers will use when working on corporate or brand orientated content.

However, as with any aspect ratio for filmmaking (or vanilla ice cream), you can always spice it up with other components. If it’s well-composed and lit properly then it can look like a chocolate fudge sundae! 😉

Below are two frames from the short film RWTG where we made 16:9 a bit more interesting through contrast and colour.

RWTG car internal 16-9 shot 1
RWTG car internal 16-9 shot 2

2.39:1

Exposes short film 2.39:1 aspect ratio

2.39:1 is used for widescreen and also anamorphic. If there is one thing that screams ‘Film’, it’s this ratio. 🙌

Subsequently, it’s made for showing off great expansive landscapes and allowing subjects to move freely around the frame.

Hospital screenshot 2.39:1

In addition to this it’s great for showing off space and covering action, plus, it just makes everything look a bit more “Hollywood”. It’s also a great ratio for using negative space and allows for a lot of creative freedom with positioning subjects.

Adjusting To Shoot For Different Aspect Ratios

When looking at aspect ratios for filmmaking, it’s important to consider the usual concerns with constructing any shot. When changing aspect ratios, we are effectively changing the canvas.

As a result, it’s important to compose your shot for the aspect ratio you want to use. Often first-time filmmakers will shoot on a DSLR camera and then crop in post to achieve their desired aspect ratio.

However, if you frame a shot in 16:9, and then crop it to 4:3 in post-production, the composition of the image will look slightly bizarre.

For example, composing a shot by following the rule of thirds on 16:9 is going to look very different to a 4:3 frame using the same rule.

If you can shoot in the ratio you intend to deliver your projects in, then great! But if you can’t, and you intend to crop in post, then frame for that desired ratio.

It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t think about this and find it just doesn’t look right.

The Weird & The wonderful Aspect Ratios

Finally, there is an array of weird and wonderful aspect ratios out there. Obviously, these will be the main ones you’re likely to come across.

However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore when you get the chance!

For example, Ben Hurr (2.76:1) and Spartacus (2.20:1) are exceptional films which don’t adhere to aspect ratio conventions.

Check them out. The extra width on the frame really does add to the experience 😉

Ben Hurr film screenshot 2.76:1 ratio
Ben Hurr (1959) – 2.76:1 Aspect Ratio
Spartacus film screenshot 2.20:1 ratio
Spartacus (1960) – 2.20:1 Aspect Ratio

Notable Mentions

We’ve also left out 35mm (1.85:1); which is slightly bigger than 16:9. This is mainly due to their similarity in frame size, with 16:9 being the more common ratio used for first-time filmmakers.

Another notable mention is 9:16, or vertical video. It’s worth bearing in mind that this is a common ratio now, particularly for branded content.

Brands want to reach audiences in new ways, and often they will work with aspect ratios that work best for certain platforms.

Wrapping Up – Aspect Ratios For Filmmaking

To sum up, the ratio you decide to use is a creative choice and depends entirely on the delivery format. However, don’t be scared to be bold if you think it’s the best option for you and the story or brand.

Aspect ratios for filmmaking are a great way to really help create a sense of atmosphere and shape how you view the frame. 👍

Cinematography, Film Production, Filmmaking Tips, Pre-Production

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